Reformation Sunday

Published on Oct 29th, 2017 by Webminister | 0

On October 31, 2017, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The date comes from Martin Luther’s act of tacking on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral a document containing ninety-five theological theses (propositions) and criticisms of the church of his day.

While Luther’s act was unquestionably important, and his critique 
led to the formation of what we now know as the Lutheran Church, he 
was not the only church reformer of the 1500s. Some of those reformers remained within what would subsequently become known as the Roman Catholic Church. Others found their initiatives led to a split from the established church and the formation of a new denomination.

Ulrich Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther, was one such reformer. Zwingli’s reforms in the city of Zurich, where he was a parish priest, led to what is called the Reformed tradition. The Reformed tradition includes various Presbyterian,
 Congregationalist, and Christian Reformed 
denominations, as well as uniting denominations such as The United Church of
 Canada whose roots include these 
denominations. A generation later John Calvin,
 based in Geneva, would become a key figure in 
shaping the Reformed tradition further. Both Zwingli and Calvin were more radical in their reforms than Luther had been.

Some of Zwingli’s emphases continue to have influence in the United Church. Zwingli stressed the importance of scripture as a primary authority for theology, and of preaching as an interpretation of scripture in the current context. He also emphasized the role of lay people in the life of the church. For example, he began the practice of having members sit around a table in the middle of the sanctuary and receive the communion elements of bread and wine from their neighbours at the table as these elements were passed around, rather than each person going to the front of the church to receive communion from the priest. The custom in many Reformed churches of receiving communion while seated in the pews has its roots in Zwingli’s practice.

As we commemorate efforts at reforming the Church 500 years ago, let us remember that we are part of a tradition that has understood itself to always be in need of reform, always needing to avoid the twin perils of continuing past practices, merely because they are traditions, and of being captivated by the new, simply because it is new.


On October 31, 1517, a 34-year-old German monk named Martin Luther nailed a document containing 95 theses, or propositions, to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. In those

theses, Luther attacked the prevailing understanding of his age that the Christian Church had the power, through the sacraments, to ensure a person‘s salvation. Luther also strongly challenged a

related concept—that we are saved, or made right with God, by virtue of the things we do. Rather, Luther said, being in right relationship with God, or our salvation comes about as a gift of God. It is grace. We do not earn this grace by our works or the things we do. Rather, being made right is God’s free gift, or grace, given to whomever God chooses. Those who know and experience that sense of grace will then seek to live as they believe God intends them to. Trying to live a faithful life is the result of experiencing God’s grace and feeling oneself in right relationship with God, not a necessary precondition to experiencing God’s love and grace.

Luther’s understanding quickly gained wide support and initiated what we now know as the Protestant Reformation. Other church leaders in Switzerland (Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin), Scotland (John Knox), and England (Thomas Cranmer) picked up Luther’s ideas, modified some of them, and started other movements to reform the church. We are the inheritors of this tradition. 

Luther’s conviction about being saved by God’s grace came from a sudden insight as he wrestled with a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. For Luther and other Reformation leaders, scripture was the primary means through which we hear God’s Word. They did not believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, but they did believe that as we read scripture and wrestle with it, collectively in worship as well as in individual and group study, we can hear God’s Word to us and for us.

Luther’s famous hymn is found in Voices United, 262:  “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (German: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott“) is one of the best-known hymns by the reformerMartin Luther, a prolific hymnodist. Luther wrote the words and composed the melody sometime between 1527 and 1529. It has been translated into English at least seventy times and also into many other languages. The words are a paraphrase of Psalm 46. (WikipediA)

Luther makes three main points in his 95 theses. Here they are, in his own words:

1. Selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s is wrong.

“The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. The Germans laugh at calling this the common treasure of Christendom. Before long, all the churches, palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built out of our money. First of all, we should rear living temples, not local churches, and only last of all St. Peter’s, which is not necessary for us. We Germans cannot attend St. Peter’s. Better that it should never be built than that our parochial churches should be despoiled. …

Why doesn’t the pope build the basilica of St. Peter’s out of his own money? He is richer than Croesus. He would do better to sell St. Peter’s and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences.”

2. The pope has no power over Purgatory.

“Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. … He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. The pope can only remove those penalties which he himself has imposed on earth, for Christ did not say, ‘Whatsoever I have bound in heaven you may loose on earth.’

Therefore I claim that the pope has no jurisdiction over Purgatory. … If the pope does have power to release anyone from Purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish Purgatory by letting everyone out? If for the sake of miserable money he released uncounted souls, why should he not for the sake of most holy love empty the place? To say that souls are liberated from Purgatory is audacious. To say they are released as soon as the coffer rings is to incite avarice. The pope would do better to give everything away without charge.”

3. Buying indulgences gives people a false sense of security and endangers their salvation.

“Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends money on indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgence of the pope but the indignation of God. …

Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of salvation. God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. …Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. This is the pain of Purgatory. …

In this disturbance salvation begins. When man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. He who does not have this is lost even though he be absolved a million times by the pope, and he who does have it may not wish to be released from Purgatory, for true contrition seeks penalty. Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross.”

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